Saturday, June 16, 2018

Back from the Hebrides

I am just back home from an amazing three weeks in the Hebrides. Ten of those days were spent aboard the good ship Hjalmar Bjorge, during which we visited 16 islands. A summary trip report will appear shortly on the Northern Lights website. Then, over the coming weeks, I will post more detailed descriptions, and photos, about what we did on each island. It was an amazing trip; we were blessed with great weather, and several days where the sea was as smooth as glass.

The Brownie's Chair - Isle of Cara

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Amidst Swirling Waters

I will be offline for a while visiting the isles of the Inner Hebrides. Two sights I hope to witness again down Scarba way are the swirling waters of Bealach a' Choin Ghlais (the Strait of the Grey Dog), and the Corryvreakan whirlpool. I should have some interesting stories and photos to share in a few weeks.

Bealach a' Choin Ghlais
Gulls and gannets fishing in Corryvreakan

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Atop Beinn Tangabhal

At just over 1,000 feet, Beinn Tangabhal is the second highest peak on Barra.  Being number two has its advantages. If you climb Number One (Heabhal) in the summer, you will probably have company. For instance, I was sitting atop Heabhal on a fine June day, eating my lunch, when a dog accompanying some hikers took a bite out of my sandwich. But if you make your way to the top of Beinn Tangabhal chances are you won't see another soul (or hungry dogs).

I apologize that the photos in this post are a bit dark, with poor colour, and out of focus. They are from my first visit to Barra way back in 1993, when I was using a cheap film camera. Here is a 25-year-old view of Castlebay as seen from the climb up Beinn Tangabhal during a stormy day. 

The views from the summit of Tangabhal south over the Barra Isles, and east over Castlebay, are as fine as you'll find on Heabhal. I especially liked the view looking north up the west coast of Barra.

Lying at the foot of the hill is Loch Tangasdail, and from the slopes of Beinn Tangabhal you can see the tower of Dùn Mhic Leòid on its tiny island in the loch, the holy well of St Columba, and the white sands of Halaman Beach.

So next time you find yourself on Blue Barra of the Waves, be sure to pay a visit to the top of Beinn Tangabhal. It is the beginning of a long loop walk that continues southwest to traverse the head of remote Glenn Bretadail, before returning to the road near the Vatersay causeway and the amazing wheelhouse remains at Allt Crisal. A walk not to be missed.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Author's Memorials - Part 2

In the April 27, 2018 post I described some of the author memorials I've visited over the years. And at the end I mentioned three graves I'd been unable to find. My wife, who is an avid genealogist, decided to surprise me and try to locate these graves. Here's an update on what she was able to find in less than an hour.

Seton Gordon: Though she was not able to find where he is buried, she did locate this memorial stone next to the Skye Museum of Island Life, only 200 metres from where Seton Gordon lived in Clachan.

Neil Munro: Munro is buried in Kilmalieu Cemetery, a kilometre northeast of Inverary. I had searched the cemetery several years ago. And it's no wonder I was unable to find the grave, because there is no headstone. But there is a memorial cairn to Neil Munro in Glen Ary, about 10 km north of Inverary at NN 0969 1901. 

DDC Pochin Mould: It turns out that one of my favorite authors, DDC Pochin Mould, has no grave. She donated her body to medical science. She left an amazing legacy of fascinating books, and to prepare for a cruise late next year (down the west of Ireland) I am currently re-reading her excellent book Irish Pilgrimage. If we're fortunate enough to land on Inishmurray, one of several small pilgrimage islands off the Irish coast, my visit will be all the more rewarding because of her work.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Something Amazing

I saw something truly amazing during my visit to Lewis last year. My wife and I were staying in a cottage on Great Bernera, and one day we decided to drive to Stornoway to visit Museum nan Eilean at Lews Castle. The museum was fantastic, and as I was looking at the various items on display I noticed an unusual dark green stone mounted high on a wall. It was egg shaped, with veins of lighter green running through it: a talisman of some kind. In an instant a memory of something I read 30 years ago popped into my head, and I knew what it was before reading the adjacent information plaque. Before me was something fantastic; something I thought I'd never see.

What was it?  It was something Frasier Darling found over 80 years ago buried below the altar of St Ronan's Cell in far off North Rona.

St Ronan's Cell (beehive cell oratory at left)

Inside the oratory - altar (and fulmar) at bottom
Here is Darling's description (from A Naturalist on Rona; pp. 43-44) of what he found while excavating the altar in St Ronan's cell:

As I was digging at floor level beside the altar my spade was deflected from a rounded stone which, even in the dim light of the cell, showed green. My first thought was - Iona Marble - a stone of which I am familiar, for I always carry some small pieces in my pocket. I picked up the stone, washed it, and found a piece of smooth, dark-green marble about the size and shape of a sheep's heart. There was an intricate veining of lighter green. No rock of this kind occurs naturally on Rona, and, found in this place of all others, I wondered if St Ronan had been to the collage of Iona and had brought this piece of stone to his church on Rona to be a symbol of the mother foundation.... this stone has left Rona with me, so that it may be seen by antiquaries and men of science, and that it may not be lost. But it must go back to its place as part of Ronan's altar and not be kept by me or placed in a museum. I have left a token of good faith of my present custodianship by burying three of my own pebbles of Iona marble in the masonry of the altar. Fanciful, perhaps, but it has pleased me so to do.

Oh how I wish I'd taken a photo of the Rona stone when I saw it in the museum. But I did not have a camera with me, and even if I did I doubt that the docents in the museum would have approved of taking a photo. 

So next time you are in Stornoway be sure to pay a visit to Museum nan Eilean at Lews Castle. And while there take the time to find a beautiful green stone mounted high on the wall - it is easy to miss. Darling did not want to see it end up in a museum, but I think it's the best place for it; although I wonder how many tourist who see it truly appreciate this ancient relic of island history.

If you are interested in visiting North Rona consider joining our ten-day cruise in July of 2019.

Postscript (May 6, 2018): I was just reading DDC Pochin Mould's book Irish Pilgrimages. On page 81 there is a description of a stone strikingly similar to the one found on Rona:

Martin Martin (1695) tells of St Moluag's Ball... this is Moluag of Lismore, who was originally a monk of Bangor in Ireland before crossing to Scotland. The stone was round and green, 'about the bigness of a goose egg'; it was used for swearing oaths, for curing stitches, and for throwing at enemies armies, the opposing force being flung into confusion and at once running away. Macdonald of the Isles was said to have carried the stone and always to have been victorious when he had it with him. The stone had a hereditary keeper of the Clan Chattan.

This makes me wonder if at some point St Moluag's stone found its way to Rona.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Back to Lunga

One of the possible destinations on our upcoming cruise is Lunga of the Treshnish Isles. Lunga is famous for its large puffin colony, and the birds are so used to visitors that they let you sit just feet from their burrows as they go about their business. They are so entrancing that many visitors spend their whole time on the island sitting, and smiling, as they watch the puffins go about their business - and they are very busy birds, indeed.

There are other things to see on Lunga: the village ruins, Fraser Darling's Cave, and the view from atop the island. But the puffins, and the myriad other seabirds that roost near Harp Rock, are sights that you'll never forget. 

Here are a few puffin photos from Lunga.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Author's Memorials

Whenever possible I like to find the graves of authors whose books about the islands have influenced me over the years.  Here are six I've been able to locate so far.

Two of the graves are in the same cemetery, Cille Barra, at the north end of Barra. The first is Compton Mackenzie, best known for Whiskey Galore.

Grave of Compton MacKenzie
The second grave in Cille Barra is that of John MacPhearson (AKA The Coddy).  His Tales from Barra is a classic.

Grave of John MacPhearson
A very prolific author of island books was Alasdair Alpin Macgregor. Two of my favourites are Behold the Hebrides and The Goat Wife.

Alasdair's memorial stone is in Balquidder Cemetery; but he is not buried there. His ashes were sprinkled in the Hebrides.

MEM Donaldson is buried in Pennyfuir Cemetery just north of Oban. For the story of finding her grave see the August 21, 2015 post. Her books Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands, and Further Wanderings - Mainly in Argyll, are invaluable resources for anyone interested in the islands.

MEM's grave in Pennyfuir Cemetery
Another author's grave I've visited has one of the most elaborately decorated tombstones I've come across; and that is the grave of Alexander Carmichael, who died in 1912. (See the June 8, 2017 post for the story of finding Carmichael's grave on Lismore.) Carmichael produced the amazing Carmina Gadelica; described by one of the book's publishers as follows: 

Carmina Gadelica is the most complete anthology of Celtic oral tradition ever assembled. During his travels, Alexander Carmichael spent hours with peasants in their huts in front of peat fires listening as they "intoned in a low, recitative manner" these poems and prayers. This unique collection of living spirituality drawn from the depths of Celtic Christianity, and represents a hidden oral tradition of great power and beauty, handed down through countless generations.  

Alexander Carmichael's grave - Lismore
I found the grave of John Lorne Campbell on Canna totally by accident (see the March 22, 2014 post).  Campbell's book Canna - The Story of a Hebridean Island is the definitive book about the island. Campbell was the premiere Gaelic scholar, and I hope his vast collection of material will someday be available to the public. St Edwards Church on Sanday (connected to Canna by bridge) was supposed to be a study centre for his material, but I don't think that's going to happen (see the October 12, 2015 post). You can read Campbell's obituary here:

Grave of John Lorne Campbell in Canna woods
There are three other graves that I hope to find someday. The first is Neil Munro's: his book Children of Tempest  - A Tale of the Outer Isles is an island classic.  I searched for his grave in the Inverary Cemetery. But I could not find it; and no one in the tourist office knew anything about him (sadly I was not surprised about that).

The second grave I hope to find is that of Seton Gordon; author of The Immortal Isles, Afoot in the Hebrides, Afoot in Wild Places, The Charm of Skye, Islands of the West and many more. He lived for a long time on Skye, but I am not sure where he's buried.

The third grave I hope to find is that of Daphne D C Pochin Mould, who passed away in 2014: Author of The Roads from the Isles, Scotland of the Saints, West Over Sea and several on the Irish islands. I assume she is buried in Ireland, but I have no idea where.

If anyone knows the location of these three graves I would love to hear from you.

In parting I'd like to say 'Rest in Peace' to all these authors; authors who've left written legacies that inspire people to this very day to explore the highlands and islands of Scotland.